When Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, clomping round a stage in Napier in massive work boots adorned with flame-red laces, threw the first "beige" insult, you could almost see the last remnant of colour drain from the audience of provincial faces.

Connolly, in feisty form, threw himself around the stage stroking his long silver wizard's beard, kung fu chopping at some kamikaze moths dive bombing from the lights, and started slagging the audience off for being too beige.

"You've got a problem in New Zealand, believe me!" he screamed. "You're beige! You are! And it's your f***ing duty to do something about it!"

All around the room the fidgeting started up. There was more discomfort than when he had told fat people to "just stop eating!" or accused the Pope of being "a f***ing Nazi".

Fawn cardigans were clasped guiltily to chests and once radical punks dropped their heads on to their off-white business shirts in shame as the last little bit of colour drained from a sea of taupe faces.

Beige! When some funny man you've always desperately admired tells you your very essence is an indiscriminate browny hue, it hurts. Especially when he's right. And it seems Connolly is not alone in spotting our national colour problem.

"We suffer from a massive national lack of self confidence," says TV foodie, author, international travel guide and famously colourful red-head Peta Mathias.

"Everything is confidence. Sex appeal is confidence, good looks are confidence, the way you dress is confidence. We miss out on so many things that would give us so much pleasure. I don't own any beige or gray clothes and why would you? Just the very colour you wear changes your whole day."

In fact, it's not the first time we've come under fire for our dourdom and blandness. From the description by an outgoing French ambassador of our women as looking like style-hungry "soldiers", to being written off as insane bores by a travel writer in the Guardian, it seems we've got a long way to go to meet the international definition of colour.

This alleged blandness seeps into every facet of our lives.

Whether it's dressing in beige or thinking in beige, the perception of us as indiscriminate wallflowers is costing us opportunities where more colourful countries step in.

In recent surveys of the business community overseas, the message about our beigenesss was almost unanimous. Indians told New Zealand Trade and Enterprise we needed to "lighten up", Koreans thought we were low-aspirational and boring.

The British thought we were like them - only 50 years ago.

Though everyone admired our family values and ability to take it easy, there was an overwhelming lack of trust that we really wanted whatever it was we said we wanted, as much as everyone else wanted it.

Critics say that rather than make a noise to be noticed from our distant Pacific nation, we Kiwis instead retreat from the world, isolating ourselves further in a sea of beige.

It's what David Skilling, the former head of the New Zealand Institute, used to refer to as the "tyranny of reasonableness".

He wanted us to aspire to big, "unreasonable" goals.

Another successful Kiwi businessman, who has conquered the international market, agrees: "In terms of aspirations we are beige but in terms of content we are full of colour.

"We should be connecting with the rest of the world rather than relying on just what happens in New Zealand.

"That's why out of how many thousands of businesses we have, only about 400 export. Everyone else relies on this tiny little market here.

"People either leave New Zealand and never come back or they do their OE and that's it. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground."

To counter the "common misperception" of New Zealand as "boring", the Tourism Board instead diverts attention to our wide, open spaces. That's enough to make Mathias sigh.

"I would have thought the Tourism Board would pull their ginger out a bit more and stop marketing us as a country where you take a long walk and start promoting us as a wine and food destination.

"The only exciting thing about our culture is the Maori culture and Polynesian culture which we are very lucky to have, otherwise we'd be even more boring than we are."

Not surprisingly that's exactly where top branding expert Brian Richards sees our cultural salvation. He talks of an exciting and emerging "Euronesian" culture, as more and more New Zealanders can claim Maori, Pacific and other cultural roots.

"You're going to see a coming of age really soon, but it's coining from arts, music and design.

"I'm very positive about moving to a less Anglo-Saxon look. I'm confident that we are well on the road already.

"By 2017 only 35 per cent of Aucklanders will be of pure European descent. People like Billy Connolly fly in and see a little bit of Britain and a little bit of this and that and you don't see strong dimensions of culture as you would see in Scotland, but that's not a fault of New Zealand, it's a process."

If we can stay tolerant and accepting of new things, Richards says, places like Auckland, for example, could become like the "Barcelona of the Pacific".

Already he reckons we have achieved a deep green hue.

True, he says, "it needs to be more vibrant and we need to do things to celebrate it and applaud it".

But you only need to see young people in action at the Big Day Out, for example, to know change is on the way. Till then, though, the less beige among us will continue to fight against the bland peril.

Loud, brash and outspoken fashion icon Denise L'Estrange Corbet of World clothing says we need to be prouder and louder about everything we do. "New Zealanders very rarely like to say what they're thinking. I find this in business.

"They think, 'Oh, I can't say that; I might hurt their feelings'. I'm like, 'Say it! Don't hang back!

"We're not quite beige, but we're still a subtle colour. We're very subtle people, New Zealanders - not very gutsy or out there.

"And we need to be. We are way behind the Aussies in that department."

Mathias agrees. "There are some fantastic people; some fantastic filmmakers, sculptors, painters, and all these people are also very New Zealand.

"There's a side of New Zealand that's very eccentric and we tolerate them, though we don't necessarily want to do it ourselves.

"When I asked New Zealand women why they wear so much black they said, 'Because we don't want to be noticed. We're not like you. We don't want everyone looking at us'."

No surprise, then, that Mathias picks our national hue as being black - not beige, but almost as boring.

"I mean, it's our national sports colour. The colour we took to the Olympics. I mean, please! Make an effort!," she said.

Meanwhile, there are ways we could all work on our personal beige issues. Connolly joked that we needed to become more ridiculous - to sidle into conversations we're not a part of and make hilarious quips.

In her book Can We Help It If We're Fabulous?, Mathias lists ideas like learning to sing and dressing more fabulously as some of the ways to spice up your life.

And she agrees with Connolly that we could do with a bit more immaturity and silliness.

Even little changes can make us feel more edgy and alive.

Outspoken Lawyer Rob Moodie has always fought the beige peril, once wearing pantyhose, pearls and dresses to work as the head of the police union, then changing his name by deed poll to Miss Alice and dressing as Alice in Wonderland during a tough law case.

Today he has on a little girl's pink watch with his otherwise normal lawyer's garb.

"It's a matter of letting yourself go," he says. "It's because it makes me feel better because I'm not conforming."

Then again, maybe we're not beige after all.

Comedian Te Radar reckons we are brimming with colour, it's just that some outsiders like Connolly can't see its subtleties.

"I think we can be misinterpreted as being beige because we're polite.

"We have that reputation for being really taciturn, for not saying anything and not blowing our own trumpet, which I think is a noble institution.

"You could think of it as being beige, but in actual fact it's probably got layers of depth and nuance that someone from outside may not necessarily understand."

We're not beige at all, says Radar - "we are a light sky blue".

"That really vibrant, light sky blue. All about potential and opportunity and the beauty of nature."